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Death of a Sewing Machine

So much has been going on since I last posted, I’m not really sure where to begin! I guess I’ll just jump right in with the most unexpected news:

My sewing machine is terminal.

If I were superstitious, I could say that Macbeth killed my machine, but I know that I’ve made my machine work harder in a day or two than most sewing machines ever even come close to working after somebody takes them out of the box.

Honestly, I’m rather surprised that I’ve managed to make a modern, overly-plastic domestic sewing machine last for almost 14 years! I’ve had to sew things I knew would abuse my poor little machine many times. But I’ve seen modern domestic machines bite the dust after only 3 or 4 years of mileage in a costume shop, so I think I was pretty good to mine, considering.

I noticed a little weirdness with it near the very end of the Nike commercial shoot. I thought it was because I was sewing so many sports jerseys. That fabric had a residue to it, which I thought might have built up on my machine, causing it to protest.

Two days later, before I could even unpack my machine from the Nike gig, I got a last minute call to go sew for some promos for the show “Big Rich Texas”. They wanted a pleather cover for a mechanical bull to look like a Chanel purse (yes, I get paid to do the weirdest things!), and my machine didn’t give me any trouble then.

When I came home from that, I cleaned my machine up a little, put in a new needle, and leisurely started sewing some mockups. It seemed to be just fine.

Then I did a 13 hour day, an 11 hour day, and a 12 hour day of Shakespeare sewing at my home shop (it became a rather big build when it wasn’t supposed to be that kind of show), and in my pedal-to-the-floor sewing, my machine started sporadically acting up – for no apparent reason.

I would be sewing a long straight seam (on two layers of cotton bedsheet fabric) and suddenly, halfway through the seam there was bobbin vomit. Now usually bobbin vomit (lots of loopy, loose stitching on the bottom of the seam) is easy to fix if you just unthread and rethread your machine.

So I did. And sew I did.

But it kept happening. On every. Single. Seam. ARG!

I just plain didn’t have the time (or patience) for it, so I put my machine aside with plans to take it to the doctor when I had a day off, and I pulled out my backup machine for the remainder of the build.

I finished the 31 costume pieces that needed to be built at home (it still looks like Scotland barfed in my sewing room), and I did a bunch of alterations at the theatre itself – they have a vintage Kenmore sewing machine for backstage repairs that I rather liked, even if it needs a little tune-up.

Plaid everywhere!

Since the play officially opened on Friday, my job on the show is finished. I have another job coming up in October for a movie shoot that will probably wrap around the first week of December.

So I suppose my machine picked the most convenient time to act up – I have work, which means I have the money to do something about it.

When I dropped my machine off at the “hospital” I was able to pick up one of my other machines that I had taken in for service recently. It is a vintage Singer Featherweight 221 that I inherited a couple of years ago from my grandmother.

My vintage Singer Featherweight 221-1 sewing machine.

When my grandmother died, I told my mom while she and her siblings were going through their mom’s stuff that I would take the sewing machine if no one else wanted it. No one did, and much to my surprise, they handed me two sewing machines – the modern one I remembered my grandmother using (which I used when I went to visit her) when I was a kid AND the little vintage Singer!

I had no idea she had the old Singer (it was probably in her closet for decades) and I *may* have squealed and jumped around for a few days after it was given to me.

The only reason I didn’t start using it immediately after I got it was because the casing on the power cord was brittle & cracked, and I was concerned I would end up shocking myself.

A couple of days after dropping off my workhorse machine, I got a call from one of the repair guys at the place where I took it.

It was sad news: my little modern machine had two “cracks” in the timing mechanism and 3 cracks in some other part I’ve forgotten. Newer Singers are essentially disposable because almost as soon as a machine is built, they stop making parts for it. So it’s not really fixable.

(Now before you start to feel sorry for me, let me just say that I had a plan and solution in motion 24 hours after I was given the grim diagnosis.)

Part of me got a little nostalgic about my machine. It was the first machine I bought for myself and it never gave me any problems until recently.

The original purchase receipt.

I used it for my wedding, my sister’s wedding, Camille’s wedding dress, and for at least 4 other wedding gowns over the years. But the very first things I built with it were two rabbit puppets I designed for a children’s theatre production of The Velveteen Rabbit my sophomore year in college.

There was a knit glove sewn to the back of each puppet’s head
so the girl who played the rabbit could animate the head.

I let some of the other theatre majors at the time do the distressing of the “older” version of the puppet and then I “patched” it up. They literally had to run over the poor thing with someone’s car just to make it look loved enough to be seen from the audience. (I’m glad I wasn’t there to watch!) Ahh, memory lane…

Anyway, back to my dying sewing machine. (Maybe like the velveteen rabbit, a fairy will come save it from the trash heap.)

But another part of me was really excited because this would be the first time I would be looking for a machine after having sewn on countless machines both new & old in a variety of industrial & domestic versions throughout my career.

Now I can confidently say what features I like and what I dislike in a sewing machine. And because I am so sure about what I want, I can almost immediately narrow down my choices by about 80% leaving only a few options to research fully.

My grandmother’s vintage Singer isn’t a good replacement option because it cannot do a zigzag stitch – it’s a straight stitch only machine (unless you use a fancy attachment). And I absolutely MUST have a zigzag stitch.

It’s also really tiny, which would make it difficult to do some of the bulky costume work I’ve been called to do – like, oh, pleather mechanical bull covers.

Sewing machine size comparison.

Who knows what it was that caused me to damage my sewing machine in the first place. I may have been sewing for years with cracked parts – they just weren’t bad enough to cause problems until now. My machine served me well and it worked hard for as long as it could. Even in the end, it kept trying.

I have my plan in motion to replace my workhorse machine – I’m just watching my mailbox for my next paycheck at this point.

Stay tuned for And here’s my solution… Even if you don’t sew, I think you’ll like it. =)

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14 responses to “Death of a Sewing Machine

  1. Cation Designs September 24, 2012 at 3:01 am

    You do get asked to sew the most incredible things! A mechanical bull cover?!

    Is it a little ridiculous that I teared up just a tiny bit when I read that your machine was trying up until the very end? I think it’s so sweet that you still have the original receipt and that it served you so well. Best of luck finding a new baby!

    • Brooke September 24, 2012 at 7:38 am

      Yes, that bull cover was one of the most random things – I have a photo but I’m not sure I can share it until I know that the promos have started airing. I will keep looking and, eventually, I should be able to post a pic, hehe.

      I had the receipt stashed in the user manual. And I was even smart enough to write the purchase date on the warranty! It actually has a 25 year warranty for something – I’m not very good with legalize but I doubt my situation applies.

  2. purplepincushion September 24, 2012 at 7:01 am

    I know how you feel!! My first new machine was a Singer that my Mom gave me for my high school graduation present. It served me faithfully for almost 10 years and I was not kind to it. I really, really wish sewing machines had stitch-o-meters on them so we could see how many “miles” we put on them! My current machine is a Pfaff that I got new 10 years ago. It has been a dream machine but I can feel the fatigue starting to set in on it:-( It really wasn’t designed to be run 8-10+ hours a day5-7 days a week. I think I will be looking for an industrial this time around.

    • Brooke September 24, 2012 at 7:46 am

      I’ve enjoyed some Pfaffs in the past – as long as they don’t have a computer brain! There was a nice one in the corner of a shop that someone unburied and we thought it had been put aside because it didn’t work – but it was great! The only annoyance was the bobbin sensor wasn’t functioning properly and it would beep at you randomly.

      It would be cool to have an odometer on a sewing machine! I have considered industrial machines for my home machine over the years, but the situation never really works out and I’ve always thought it just wasn’t meant to be. Plus, I really need a portable at this stage of my career. (But I did seriously look at some this time before deciding on a different solution.)

      • purplepincushion September 24, 2012 at 7:26 pm

        Yeah, I agree about the portability. I will always have a table top version for that reason. I have an Singer straight stitch industrial (no reverse or zigzag) that is amazing! I picked it up at an auction for nothing so I can’t complain about the reverse/zigzag. The home machines can’t even touch the power and speed of the industrial. I would really love to have one with the reverse and zigzag options so I won’t have to feel bad about beating the crap out of my regular machine:-) My Pfaff is the basic end of the computer brained Pfaffs. Haven’t had any problems at all (of course I only use about 3 of the special stitches on a regular basis). I wasn’t thrilled about the computer part but I had to go with it to get the walking foot/differential feed which I LOVE! Makes sewing on any kind of squirmy, slimy fabric a breeze.

  3. CostumeDeeva September 24, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Sorry to hear about your machine, my condolences…

    For a quilter, that featherweight 221 is the ‘holy grail’ of machines. They don’t make moderns machines that can replicate the absolutely perfect straight stitch of that old broad.
    I don’t envy the new search – I find shopping for a new machine right up there with shopping for a new car (groan)…

    Good luck and happy hunting!

    • Brooke September 24, 2012 at 7:51 am

      You truly can’t compete with an old black Singer sewing machine – no matter what the model!

      Unlike car shopping (which I HATE), I kind of like taking to sewing machine sales ladies (probably because I know what I like). I always have to convince them that the first one or two machines they show me have way too many features. And I actually taught the lady something new this time, hehe. It was fun. =)

  4. Karen September 24, 2012 at 11:02 am

    I had a terrific Viking machine which I put countless hours of stitching on throughout the ’80s and early ’90s – until I used it to help with an “Art Goes to School” project at my kids’ school. I was given the task of making gigantic soft sculpture food (sounds awful, doesn’t it?). I made a “piece” of cherry pie, using round flannel-backed vinyl tablecloths for the pie crust and plate. My machine was never the same after that – and I eventually had to replace it…
    I’ve got a Singer 221 featherweight, which I LOVE. No better straight-stitch around, but you’re correct – no zigzag and not great on multiple thick layers of cloth.
    I’m anxious to find out what new machine you decide on!

    • Brooke September 24, 2012 at 11:39 am

      The food project sounds like some of the crazy things I have been asked to do, hehe.

      I have the button-hole attachment set for my Singer 221 and I will probably have fun with that at some point – I’m curious to see how the keyhole style turns out with the attachment. It’s fascinating how they engineered the attachments for a straight-stitch machine back then.

      I don’t want to give my choice away yet, but here’s a hint: I’ve decided to replace my one machine with two.

      • Karen September 24, 2012 at 12:18 pm

        Ah – very interesting!! And why not? In sewing, more is always more! I have three machines and use them all (and none of them is a serger).

  5. thevintagetraveler September 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Well I had no idea that loopy stuff was called bobbin vomit, but it sure is aptly named.

    • Brooke September 24, 2012 at 5:20 pm

      I’m not sure if it’s really the official name, but that’s what I’ve always heard it called in places I’ve worked. It made the repair guy & a sales lady laugh – they hadn’t heard it called that before either. =)

  6. Cindy September 25, 2012 at 12:32 am

    How exciting for you! I splurged and bought my self three new Singer machines when I “retired” from teaching public school science. My latest is a vintage Sterling machine; I couldn’t resist it because Sterling is my maiden name….and it is my favorite color: Seafoam Green! My total: 7 machines, though I usually use only four. The rest are eye candy!

    • Brooke September 25, 2012 at 7:43 am

      Ooo, your Sterling machine sounds fun! I love the vintage colors everyday items used to come in – now they like to put rather cheesy decals on modern machines (probably to make them seem less intimidating).

      I think my total count will be 5 sewing machines and one serger now. One is my grandmother’s old Singer and one is really just a miniature thing that is a great emergency travel machine (it’s literally about the size of a standard piece of paper when viewed from the front). Someday, I really want to get a cover-stitch machine.

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